Sovereignty from the North
This article is reprinted with permission from The Walrus Magazine where
it was first published in November 2007.
For generations, Canadians have professed to be a "people of the
North." The reality, however, is that the Arctic has been on the margins
of Canadian consciousness. This is about to change, not because there
has been a radical shift in the Canadian collective consciousness, but
rather because the Arctic has become a geopolitical hot potato.
Climate change and sovereignty have parachuted the region into the
media spotlight. Increasingly, the average Canadian sees the Arctic as
being at risk from the devastating impact of climate change, the
implications of which will be felt in every backyard. All of a sudden,
control of the Arctic and the famed Northwest Passage—the stuff of
poetry and lore—might fall into the hands of others!
At the same time, the current federal government has backed away from
commitments to Inuit (along with First Nations and Metis) by not
pursuing the historic Kelowna Accord, which was to inject long-promised
and much-needed funding into critical infrastructure and programs to
improve living conditions for Inuit. Key among these was substantive
funding for housing, where overcrowding and hidden homelessness are
rampant. Kelowna promised 1,200 housing units over five years. These
vanished when the Liberal government fell. The current government did
earmark $200 million for new housing in Nunavut, but it has not provided
the needed funding in other regions where Inuit are located. Similarly,
$1.3 billion for aboriginal health care and $1.8 billion for education
have not been provided.
Canada is sending mixed signals about its commitments to the Arctic.
The federal Conservatives have done away with our ambassador for
circumpolar affairs, shelved the Northern Strategy initiative launched
by the Martin Liberals, missed opportunities to build vital scientific
research infrastructure, which could have been a legacy of the
International Polar Year, downgraded Canada's attendance at last year's
Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Salekhard, Russia, and backed away
from election promises to build heavy icebreakers.
For the past half-century, Arctic sovereignty crises have appeared
every ten to fifteen years. The building of the Alaska Highway during
World War II led Mackenzie King to write in his diary that it was like
the finger of a giant American hand reaching for the Arctic. In the
1950s, Cold War concerns about Soviet attacks forced Canada to get into
bed with the U.S. to build the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar
Then came the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, prompting the
U.S. to send the supertanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage in
1969 and again in 1970. The CIA published an atlas in the early 1970s
that labelled the Beaufort Sea of "undetermined" ownership. In August
1985, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea voyaged through the
Northwest Passage without permission from the Canadian government.
Canada and the U.S. also have an ongoing dispute over the maritime
boundary between Alaska and Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. Each side has
claimed authority to issue oil and gas leases in the disputed area. In
2005, Canada got into a flap with Denmark—a new chapter in an old
story—over claims to tiny Hans Island in the Nares Strait between
northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
Now, with the advent of climate change, the period between crises
appears to be shortening. It has been only a few years since the Hans
Island episode, and Canada is again in crisis-response mode over
Russia's planting of a flag on the ocean bottom at the North Pole.
Why is Canada prone to these crises? After all, Canada is a northern
nation, with full sovereignty over its Arctic waters and territories,
right? We become indignant when anyone suggests otherwise. Prime
Minister Harper confirmed this recently: "Even Canadians who have never
been north of sixty feel it. It's embedded in our history, our
literature, our art, our music, and our Canadian soul. That's why we
react so strongly when other countries show disrespect for our
sovereignty over the Arctic."
The key word here is "react." If we look back over the past century,
it is clear that Canada has rarely been out in front on the Arctic
sovereignty issue. Instead, federal politicians have typically been
caught in frenzies of chest thumping in response to the actions of other
states. This points to the embarrassing reality that we have been asleep
at our posts when it comes to Arctic affairs.
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